Before February 7, the closest I’d ever come to meeting an NBA player was 1993 when I attended the graduation of a family friend at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. David Robinson was there in full military regalia to watch his younger brother walk across the stage, and I was so blown away by his otherworldly aura that I took a hazy snapshot of him and framed it. Basketball players to me have always been characters in a televised play or stat lines in the Washington Post: culturally and financially distant, physically impossible. Seeing a game courtside a few years ago did little to demystify my obsession, up close the athleticism is a staggering combination of speed, size and nuanced skill.
But last month Adam Granduciel and I had the distinct pleasure of sitting and talking with three point specialist Matt Bonner of the San Antonio Spurs—he’s a massive music fan and, frankly, I exploited that for the opportunity to pick his brain. At first he seemed a bit confused why two disheveled and visibly nonathletic band dudes would want to formally “interview” him, but he settled in nicely and we became fast friends. After the interview we took him and the Spurs’ gregarious publicist Tom to one of our favorite Philly hangs Johnny Brenda’s and caught them handling the Sixers the next night. It was a distinct pleasure to have my preconceptions of the NBA lifestyle realigned and a couple of my myths busted.
DH: How does music fit in with your motivation process, being a player who is relied upon to come into the game and shoot at a high percentage? Do you want to get pumped up, or do you want to be sort of leveled out and even?
MB: It’s funny you ask that, in my early days in high school and college, I was all about getting pumped up. I’d listen to Metallica and Megadeth and just really hard music to try to get myself all fired up to go out and take someone’s head off. But now it’s more about being focused and relaxed out there, getting into a rhythm and a groove. Hitting the outside shot, that’s kind of my niche—it’s pretty much all I do. So it’s definitely come down to really mellow stuff: Bruce Springsteen, Okkervil River, Stars. Just really relaxing, mellow music—save the heavy stuff for after. The flip side of what I get to pick is just being annoyed to death at the arena music.
AG: Yeah, I imagine.
MB: It’s terrible and repetitive. No matter where you go, every NBA arena is the same. It’s like the music in Orwell’s 1984 all over again, they just tweak it a little bit and throw it in the arenas.
DH: So are you more into albums or individual songs as far as your listening habits?
MB: Albums. I really appreciate a solid album start to finish. There’s nothing worse than spending ten bucks on iTunes on an album you think will be good with only a couple songs that end up being good. So I’m all about the complete album. That’s actually why I really got into vinyl. It forces you to slow down; you can’t skip ahead or fast forward. You really have to experience what the artist wants you to experience. I thought 2011 was a great year for records, actually. I loved the tUnE-yArDsw h o k i l l album, Burst Apart by The Antlers.
AG: 2011 had the biggest jump in vinyl sales in 25 years, I think.
Burst Apart, I really like. You wouldn’t think I’d listen to it before a game, but I do. I wouldn’t go as far as to listen to Explosions in the Sky, that’s a little too mellow. I’m a huge Deer Tick fan, Arcade Fire, Win Butler’s a basketball fan. He beat me in a three point contest—in all fairness I hadn’t really touched a ball in a couple months and I got arrogant and tried to bank in the winning three and missed it—but I gotta tip my hat to him he’s a pretty good player, very competitive. I do a charity event in Toronto called Rock the Court, we try to get musicians and NBA guys. It’s not a celebrity game it’s actually a celebrity tournament.
DH: You were drafted by The Raptors, right?
MB: Yeah, I got drafted by The Raptors, went and played in Italy for a year, came back and played two seasons in Toronto and then in the off-season got traded to the Spurs. This is my sixth year with the Spurs. Another huge sport sports nut is Dallas Green from City and Colour, a Canadian band, and he’s been very successful musically but he competes in the event. He’s solid. We’ve had Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam.
DH: I remember seeing him on NBA Inside Stuff when I was a kid, shooting with Mookie Blaylock, draining threes!
MB: He’s really good friends with my former teammate and good friend Brent Barry, which is how we got connected. I kind of reciprocated and participated in Win Butler’s Rock Vs. Jock tournament. It puts musicians against a collection of college players from Concordia and McGill universities, with a couple ringers thrown in on the musicians’ team to give them a chance. Myself and (former NBA player) Paul Shirley played with Win and Will along with Chris, the drummer from Vampire Weekend, who plays in a men’s league, and we had the lead singer from Miracle Fortress play, as well. The whole indie rock genre, as far as it goes with basketball, is kind of untapped by the NBA.
DH: Totally untapped. And it’s a world that’s falling in love with the NBA, or is already in love with it. These are people who grew up in the glory days of the NBA and have all these great memories and nostalgia about it.
MB: And I do a charity concert in my home state and I get in touch with lost of booking agents and bands and mangers and labels, whoever, through that, and my brother plays for Austin in the D-League, which is obviously a big indie rock hot spot, so he has a lot of friends who are in that business, so I get to meet a lot of bands through that, and I’ll just say, “look, if you’re passing through, if you’re on tour and we criss-cross, let me know and you can come to a game”, and after they’re always like, “Oh my God, it was my first NBA game, I’ve never had the opportunity to go before, it was awesome, I want to come back,” blah blah blah.
DH: So you’re kind of planting seeds all over the country.
MB: My ultimate would be to get the Arcade Fire to replace Kelly Clarkson or Justin Bieber at the NBA All-Star halftime show.
DH: What’s it like to be into rock and roll or indie rock in a league that, at least on the surface, is totally hip hop dominated? Are there other players who share your interest in it, or do you feel kind of like a loner?
MB: Kind of a loner, not gonna lie. Brent Barry was into it with me. We’d go to Austin and go to shows, ACL and SXSW. He retired, unfortunately, so I’m kind of on my own out there. It’s funny because sometimes for the coaches, I’ll go old school on them and make them a mix CD, and they’ll ask me, “Hey Matty, we know you’re into music we haven’t heard, we like your taste. Can you put something together?” And they’ll get into it, which is kind of funny. Honestly, I haven’t met any other NBA player who is into indie rock. I haven’t. Nobody. There might be, but I haven’t met them. You’d think I would, I’m pretty public about my passion. Anyways, different subject: The Spurs have this thing called Overtime. On weekend home games, they’ll set up a stage at a bar in the courtyard outside the arena and usually they’ll book cover bands. The best they’ve done is The Spazmatics, an 80’s cover band. So basically they’ll play a concert right after the game, the fans can go out in the courtyard and keep partying and watch a band play. So I got The Spurs to let me host it. I don’t want to release too many details but I’ve been in talks with some pretty sweet indie bands. We’ll see what happens. It’s unprecedented. I contacted two bands, hoping one would get back to me and they both responded “we’re in.” I’m like “holy crap, all right.” I hope it goes well and next year they’ll give me more nights, make a series out of it, get you guys to come. And it’s within the budget of what they were paying the cover bands, anyway. I’m curious how it’ll go over, it’ll be interesting.
DH: So is that something you want to get more into when you eventually get out of basketball?
MB: I do, but I hear a lot bad stories about the business of music, you know? I don’t want it to ruin it for me.
DH: That actually dovetails into my next question. Does the business of basketball make you love basketball less? I’ve known people in the music business who decide at some point, “I can be happy playing music in my home, with my friends, but this whole thing of trying to cater to labels and agents and promoters and managers and stuff is just ruining my love of music.” Of course in the NBA, we’re talking about a much larger business and pay scale. Does it poison it at all?
MB: There’s definitely a business side to it that at times can be frustrating, but overall, no it doesn’t. I’m lucky because I made it. There are guys who are good enough to make it—it’s the same thing in music—they’re good enough to make it, but they don’t catch a break at the right time, or they get injured at the wrong time, or when they get their window the team’s over the salary cap or they don’t have enough roster space, something happens where they don’t get the chance that they should have. Obviously a lot can be said for perseverance and hard work, but you need a little luck, too. It’s one thing if you’re a freak of nature, a Kevin Garnett or a Shaquille O’Neal, but if you’re like a borderline guy trying to work really hard to achieve your dreams, there is some luck involved. And I’m fortunate enough to be standing here as a player in the NBA. I love, love my job. That’s another thing, you ask me what I want to do in ten or twenty years, I honestly have a hard time thinking of my life outside of basketball. Whatever I do is going to have something to do with basketball.
DH: Could you see yourself getting into broadcasting?
MB: I don’t know. I’d have to try it out, see if I liked it.
DH: Who do you think are some players that maybe don’t get enough attention from ESPN and NBA TV?
MB: I’m really bad at these kind of questions.
DH: Anybody on your own team?
MB: I still think Tim Duncan. Today they had him listed on ESPN as the fourth greatest player to ever play the game. The best power forward to ever play the game. For someone that great, he kind of flies under the radar.
DH: Yeah, we take him for granted a little bit. Because of his consistency, maybe.
AG: Who were some of your favorites when you were a kid?
MB: Growing up in New Hampshire in the late 80s, I was all about The Celtics. McHale, Parish, Bird. I remember M.L. Carr did an appearance at Joe King’s, a local shoe store in downtown Concord—I think I was five or 6—and I brought my basketball from home and he signed it for me. It rained that night, we had like a retention sewage stream in our backyard. The water was really high, and we had a hoop in our backyard. I’m six years old shooting on this hoop with a ball I just got signed by ML Carr. I missed one off the back of the rim and it went right in the stream and just took off. I chased it all the way through the south end of Concord and was in the next town, but gave up, came home crying.
AG: I met McHale at a Papa Geno’s when I was 7. He refused to admit he was Kevin McHale.
AG: I had been to a million games. It was obviously, definitely Kevin McHale at this Poppa Geno’s. I was like, “You’re Kevin McHale,” and he was like, “No, I’m not Kevin McHale.” You know, he always looked tired. He was acting like he was really tired and didn’t want to sign anything.
MB: Papa Geno’s. I loved Papa Geno’s. I miss that. Tuesday nights, all you can eat.
AG: Yeah. I guess they have that old place Popa John’s, I guess.
DH: Pizza joints, I’m assuming?
MB: It’s a New England pizza chain. Papa John’s and D’Angelo’s, a grinder place. My brother and I would go in there, to the jukebox and throw in a five dollar bill. You get twenty plays. We’d punch in N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” twenty times and walk out. People would get so pissed.
DH: One of the other questions I had was, well, I play bass in The War on Drugs, and if you listen to a Led Zeppelin record, or any record from the early to mid seventies, the bass is loud and defined and you can hear the fingers on the strings.. nowadays, just because of mixing and mastering and stuff, bass is kind of just this indistinct rumble in the background. I’ve always thought how fun it would been to play bass on records in the seventies, to have that palette. Did you ever wish you played basketball in the 90’s when the three point line was moved in, or Is there any other era or team you wish you could have played for?
MB: I don’t wish I was playing too long ago, when they had to wear those tiny shorts. That would not look appealing on me.. but, honestly, being on The Spurs these last six years. I’ve been really lucky. We’ve had a really good team, we’ve won at least 50 games every year. We won a championship, advanced in the playoffs.. it’s hard for me to be greedy and wish I was on the Bulls in the mid 90’s.
DH: But you would have probably drilled those short threes, though, right?
MB: Absolutely. That would have brought the old percentage up a few points.
AG: The Celts could have used you in ‘88 or so, though. ‘88 and ‘89.
MB: Yeah, that would have been sweet. I mean, the Celtics in the late 80s would have been absolutely amazing. I mean, in my head, that’s actually what happened in my driveway every afternoon.
DH: How does the three point contest work? Have you ever participated in that? Are you going to?
MB: It’s been a bone of contention with me.
DH: You’ve been shooting at one of the highest percentages, consistently, in the league.
MB: It’s what I do. So, it’d be like, try to think of someone who can only dunk never getting invited to the dunk contest. I’ve gotten a different reason from the league every year. Last the guys who made it in front of me had a lot more attempts, so I’ve come up with the mindset this year to just fire, without reason.
AG: Two for 18, every game.
MB: If I go 2 for 18 every game, so be it, at least they’re not going to be able to say, “look you didn’t have enough attempts.”
AG: Wherever you are on the court, just launch.
DH: Have they announced who’s going to compete this year?
MB: I think because of the shortened season they’ll announce it last minute. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll just try again next year.
DH: Amongst fans i think it’s well know that it’s not necessarily a representation of the five best three point shooters in the league. Because ever year I’m like, “Paul Pierce? I know he can shoot the three but he’s not a specialist,” so I was surprised to see him there.
MB: That’s the thing, though, I’m sure people would rather see Paul Pierce than me.
DH: So when we go on tour—we’re going to Europe on Saturday for a few weeks—the whole thing is, you drive to the gig, you load in, you soundcheck probably around four o’clock or something, and then you don’t play until maybe eleven or twelve. And there’s all this down time. You try to read maybe, you go on the internet, but it’s kind of the trickiest thing for a musician, what you do with that time. Because you’re antsy and you just kind of just want to play. I just wonder what your day is like when you get ready for a game?
MB: It’s similar, yeah, we have walk through in the morning at ten o’clock and we’re out by eleven and we don’t play until seven. So you have seven or eight hours. My routine is: I go and get a sandwich somewhere, I come home and eat my sandwich, go on the internet or watch a movie, take a nap and try to relax. Nothing that exciting, really.
DH: How important is it when you eat and how much?
MB: Very important. You don’t want to be having intestinal issues during a basketball game. I did a blog a couple of years ago about sandwiches. I go and try to find the best sandwich possible in every city I’m in.
AG: Have you been to Paesano’s in Philly?
MB: The Italian place?
AG: Yeah, there’s one right near our houses, actually.
MB: We did the Pat’s and Geno’s thing. I’m a huge Wawa fan, not gonna lie. Where are you guys going in Europe?
DH: We’re flying into the U.K. We’re doing a show in Birmingham that got added late then we’re going over to the Netherlands and Belgium.
AG: Germany, Copenhagen.
MB: I’m assuming you guys have been over there before, right?
AG: Yeah, a few times. You played in Italy, right?
AG: What city?
MB: I was in Sicily.
AG: Wow. I’ve been to Italy, but we’ve been trying to get shows there forever. It’s hard. It’s one of those countries where the rock and roll market kind of stops, you know? But when you come there, they love it, apparently.
MB: In Sicily, no one speaks any English. So we used to go to this bar after our games. They had a couple bands and the only songs in English they could play were by the Beatles, U2, and The Rolling Stones.
DH: If you’re going to pick three bands, I suppose you could do a lot worse. So, do you think the efficiciency you have. I mean, I’ve noticed this way before I knew we were going to be hanging out and talking, I remember thinking, “this guy just comes in and hits shots.” That’s hard, right? So many people try to do that, and fail. Is efficiency in your DNA? How does that work?
MB: You have to work on it. Being a shooter, we don’t practice this season because of the schedule. But when I’m home, every off day, we have this shooting machine called “The Gun,” and I’ll go in every off day and take three or four hundred jump shots on ‘the gun’, on this machine, to go into a game and take maybe three or four shots. So I’m taking hundreds and even thousands of reps every week to go in and, depending how the defense guards me, I might get two threes in twenty five minutes of playing time. Or I might get ten threes, I don’t know. But it’s all that practice that goes into this one, short, specific, defined, niche. That’s my roll on the team.
DH: It’d be like someone who has to sing some crazy operatic note, and you get one shot at it, and that’s all you do. It’s your time to shine.
MB: The peripheral advantage of that is, you know, I’ll be in a game and I might be 0 for 3, or 0 for 4 from three coming down the stretch in a close game. Coach Popp will still have me in there, and it’s for spacing. Regardless of what I’m doing, the other team can’t help off me. It opens up space for Tim, Tony, Manu, those guys, to operate and do their thing. A lot of times, in the schematics of an offense, it’s not always about me making threes, it’s just about me being out there.
DH: Stretching the defense.
MB: Stretching the defense and shooting when I’m open. Even if I’m 0 for 10, I need to shoot to keep them honest. You have nights where that happens, you might go 0 for 8 from three. I might be 6 for 8 the next night.
Tom Jones (Spurs staff): What’s your best shooting in practice? When you do that shooting drill, what percentage do you make?
MB: With no defense, just shooting with a coach, at the very least 80 percent. It just goes to show how much harder it is in the flow of a game. You’ve got Kevin Garnett flying at you.
AG: Probably saying something ridiculous. What’s your favorite part of the three point area?
MB: I don’t really have one. We’ve kept data, I’m pretty consistent all the way around the arc.
DH: Where’d you learn your shot, your stroke?
MB: I was always working on it, growing up. And I had a coach in elementary school who was all about fundamentals, rotation, everything.
DH: I’m sure you teach shooting in the summers, too, right?
MB: Yeah, I do, I have a camp.
AG: Oh really?
DH: Well, you’ll see us there this summer.
Written and transcribed by Dave Hartley, interview by Dave Hartley and Adam Granduciel. Hartley plays bass for The War on Drugs and also has a blog, Death Dunk, with Impose Magazine.